Early Action as Empowerment: Where Climate Change Adaptation Overlaps Development in Uganda
By Joy Larson,
Climate and Society ’13
One significant effect of climate change is increased climate variability. High temperatures are going to become higher and extremes will be more frequent, dry spells are going to last longer, storms are going to be more intense. Many parts in Africa are already feeling this effect: long dry spells and food shortages are followed by intense storms and flash floods. In Uganda, the Partners for Resilience (PfR) are working to help marginalized communities adapt to this increased variability by implementing early warning systems across timescales.
The Partners for Resilience (CARE, Cordaid, Wetland International and Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center) target the most vulnerable populations living in places that are highly exposed to climate risk. Although Uganda is one of the up-and-coming countries in Africa and is rich in natural resources, outside of the capital of Kampala economic development is forthcoming. The communities I have seen are still undergoing assimilation: historically they were nomadic, and their settlement has been disrupted by years of ethnic conflict and the Lord’s Resistance Army. As they are coming out of IDP camps and rebuilding their communities, they reside in huts, not all households have latrines, they are subsistence farmers who sometimes sell excess harvest at market, they need to walk kilometers to the closest source of freshwater and there is no electricity. Weather variability only presents more obstacles to food security and health infrastructure.
In these marginalized areas, like many stories you hear about Africa, numerous NGOs have stepped in to take over where the government fails to provide basic services. I have conflicting accounts of the ex-pat NGO culture: some people criticize NGOs for not staying long enough and for leaving when their projects are over, but then I see some communities living in dependency, waiting for hand-outs from the large white ATVs that drive by. But there are also success stories where local Ugandan NGOs are building capacity in isolated communities.
Hazards from extreme weather in PfR communities in Uganda include heavy rains, prolonged dry spells, waterlogging, poor road networks and strong winds. The disasters that result from these hazards are floods, famine, drought and disease. Although seasonal forecasts show a lot of skill in this area, they cannot predict the frequency or intensity of potentially hazardous weather within the season. In the tropics, cloud formation and localized atmospheric dynamics result in a lot of variation within the geographic area covered by the forecast, rendering the short-term meteorological forecasts less unreliable. To compliment scientific forecasts, one of the more interesting aspects of the work I am doing is looking at traditional information – indigenous knowledge – that can also be used to trigger early action.
My role as an intern with the Climate Centre is technical: I am here to develop a community-based low-tech tool to facilitate decision-making under given forecast scenarios. When I ask about early actions some communities respond more readily than others and some people participate more than others. I go through a process of asking them to identify the actions and the specific resources they need to take action themselves before a hazard occurs, emphasizing that they can take a role in determining how weather variability will affect them.
What I have seen is that the implementation of early warning systems means more than just disseminating seasonal forecasts; the implications of early action run deeper than being another mechanism for climate change adaptation. Emotionally, considering where these communities are coming from (assimilation met with erratic economic development, displacement and insecurity), the psychological hurdle they have in front of them is something I don’t really have a reference point for. It will require making a conceptual leap from waiting by the road for handouts to thinking ahead and mobilizing actions that that they can take to prevent disaster. The message is nuanced: they cannot control the weather, but they can reduce risks. With early action they can realize self-reliance over dependency, increasing resiliency by moving closer to the long term development goal of self-determination.